How to (finally) remember your speech

Updated to Business on December 19, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

For some speakers, memorizing a speech and delivering it word for word, exactly as planned, is the highest form of delivery.

Frankly, I find that type of delivery is demeaning to the audience, lazy and, at best, boring.

If a speaker is reading from their notes it better be the most brilliant prose I’ve ever heard or get off the stage.

Audiences came to hear from you – what you believe, how you deal with some of the same problems they have, and they want to experience your personality.

Sure, you want to deliver your anchor phases perfectly, or set up a story to make it more memorable. But, please leave memorizing a speech to politicians and Toastmasters.

Instead, let’s look at how to remember the main points and flow of your speech.

From brainstorm to bullets

When you use my speech template, you start with a list of brainstormed stories, quotes, lessons, examples, exercises and key phrases you could deliver.

Next you move what looks important and relevant into the template.

From there you craft that new list into bullets and sub-bullets.

So far, so good. You have the meat of the content: opening, problem, my story, 3 points, etc.

Next, you need to get it down to workable points.

From bullets to key points

Going through my content, pounding it into shape and narrowing the list to what will be delivered gets my speech in shape, but also reminds me of the content. As I’m working on the content I’m going through stories in my head, practicing key points, and working out the delivery of a lesson.

But, I don’t want or need all that detail when I’m on stage. I want to be prepared, I just don’t want to be married to my notes and coming off as stiff and rehearsed.

My next step is to shorten all the bullets to key points and drop the sub-bullets.

So, instead of writing:

  • Plan like a pilot:
    • Antarctica story
    • Statistics on planning
    • Mention any type of recording works
    • Example of client success

I write:

  • Plan like a pilot

Will I sometimes forget a sub-point? Yes! But, I come off as relaxed, in the moment – present.

From key points to anchors

My final step is to anchor key points so I don’t get lost.

In a 60 minute speech I might have 10 key points I need to deliver. Those are written on a 4 X 6 index card I take on stage, place on the podium or floor. I might only glance at the card each time I give the audience an exercise – 3 or 4 times in a speech.

Each one has sub-points but those I’m going to practice, not add to my stage notes.

Nobody’s perfect

Every time I speak I forget some points.

Unless it’s a big one, I’d rather be relaxed, spontaneous and enjoying the audience, rather than sweating over some small point they’re going to forget anyway.

Nobody will miss what isn’t there, so do your homework, reduce your notes to the bare minimum, and then go out there and be present with your audience.

After all, that’s what they came for.